Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday called out Russia for exploiting instability in Africa and committing abuses with impunity, and blamed Moscow for worsening food security on the continent over its war in Ukraine.
The secretary’s remarks were part of a wide-ranging speech on the Biden administration’s strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa, delivered at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, amid rising competition between Washington and Moscow for influence on the continent.
Still, Blinken emphasized that the U.S. “will not dictate Africa’s choices, neither should anyone else,” but added that Washington is looking to African nations “to defend the rules of the international system that they’ve done so much to shape.”
“These include the right of every country to have its independence, its sovereignty, its territorial integrity, respected. A principle at stake now in Ukraine,” Blinken said. “We believe that all nations should be able to stand up for the right of a country not to have its borders redrawn by force. For if we allow that principle to be violated anywhere, we weaken it everywhere.”
Blinken’s arrival in South Africa was part of a three-country tour that will also comprise the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
Many African nations have resisted taking a firm stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At least 17 African nations, including South Africa, abstained in votes during the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, during trips last week to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo, praised African nations as acting responsibly and decried Western democracies’ history of colonial rule on the continent.
“I am sure the overwhelming majority of world countries do not want to live as if the colonial times [have] come back,” Lavrov said in Ethiopia last week.
The Biden administration has often stressed in its global talks that the United States is not forcing countries to “choose,” but that the U.S. is a better “choice” for developing nations as a partner, compared to countries like Russia or China, which is also heavily invested on the continent.
But on Monday, the secretary delivered direct criticism against Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine and interference in African nations, in particular the mercenary Wagner Group.
Blinken said the “Kremlin-backed Wagner group … exploits instability to pillage resources, and commit abuses with impunity,” in particular in Mali and the Central African Republic, where Human Rights Watch has accused the group of carrying out atrocities, such as summary executions, torture and killing of civilians.
“The United States recognizes that African countries face real security concerns and that countless communities are afflicted by the twin scourges of terrorism and violence. But the answer to those problems is not Wagner — it’s not any other mercenary group,” Blinken said, adding that the U.S. is focused on supporting strengthening democracies to combat instability.
“African countries can count on the United States to support these efforts,” he said.
Blinken also blamed Russia for exacerbating poverty and hunger on the African continent over its invasion of Ukraine.
Only recently have ships stuck under Russian blockade in Ukrainian ports been able to exit with tens of thousands of tons of foodstuffs under a joint initiative brokered by the United Nations and Turkey.
Blinken brought up World Bank estimates that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to plunge 40 million more people into food insecurity, requiring humanitarian food assistance, on top of 193 million people already dependent on international aid, adding that “most” of these people are in Africa.
“The United States is there for African countries in this unprecedented crisis, because that’s what partners do for each other and because helping Africans jumpstart a broad-based recovery and build resilience to weather future shocks is vital to our shared prosperity,” Blinken said.
A senior administration official, speaking to reporters before the secretary’s speech, reiterated that the administration’s viewed China and Russia’s influence on the continent as “very subsidiary from our perspective,” adding that the U.S. is focused on “how we can do better to work more effectively with Africans to achieve results in areas that challenge us all.”
The secretary’s speech laid out key priorities for U.S. relations with African nations, including strengthening democracy, governance, peace and security, trade investment, and economic development, while tackling how the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change is worsening already dire circumstances on the continent.
Blinken said the U.S. is committed to Africa because it views the continent as a “major geopolitical force” and that by 2050, one in four people on the planet will be Africans.
“They will shape the destiny not only of this continent, but of the world,” Blinken said.